Meet Riley, the Puppy Training to Sniff Out Bugs in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts

The Weimaraner will inspect incoming artwork for beetles, moths and other critters that can damage museum collections

Riley Dog
Riley, future bug-cop. Museum of Fine Arts Boston

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has made some pretty incredible acquisitions recently. In the last year alone, the museum received an important collection of 113 Dutch paintings. It also expanded its collection of 2oth-century painters. But as Steve Annear at The Boston Globe reports, the museum's latest addition, Riley, a Weimaraner puppy who will help the museum search for insects and pests that might harm artworks, is the story that's currently fetching the most attention.

Bugs in a museum are no small problem. Moths can munch on delicate textiles like wool, silk and cotton, and beetles can burrow into wooden objects. That's not to mention the horrors that silverfish can inflict on books. To get an idea of how much damage bugs can inflict on institutions, consider the outbreak of “clothes moths” that infested just about every museum in Great Britain.

The Museum of Fine Arts wanted to stop such infestations before they start. Enter the puppy.

“We have lots of things that bring, by their very nature, bugs or pests with them,” Katie Getchell, chief brand officer and deputy director of the Museum of Fine Arts, explains in an interview with Annear. “If [Riley] can be trained to sit down in front of an object that he smells a bug in, that we can’t smell or see, then we could take that object, inspect it, and figure out what’s going on — that would be remarkable in terms of preserving objects.”

Currently, Riley doesn’t know a clothes moth from a piece of kibble. But according to Darren Reynolds at ABC News, Nicki Luongo, the museum’s director of protective services (who is also Riley’s owner), will train the pup for the job over the next year. Weimaraners are a particularly good breed for such tasks since they have stamina and can work for long hours without getting bored. That’s one reason they are often used as bomb- or drug-sniffing dogs. It doesn't hurt either that Riley does not have a long tail, making him an especially good dog for working in a museum full of fragile objects.

Riley isn’t the museum's only defense against insects, of course. Getchell tells Annear of the Globe that the museum already has stringent protocols designed to exclude creepy crawlies from the collection. Riley, who will work mostly behind the scenes, is an experiment. If he’s on point when it comes to bug detection, other institutions might get their own museum pups. 

This isn’t the only program using dogs to safeguard cultural artifacts to make news lately. Katie Bontje at the Daily Pennsylvanian reports that the Penn Museum and the Penn Vet Working Dog Center is working with the nonprofit heritage group Red Arch to train dogs to sniff out stolen pieces of cultural heritage. The program, called K-9 Artifact Finders, is using training material from the Penn Museum to help the dogs find contraband. If that goes well, eventually, the dogs could be deployed in the field with customs agents to track down stolen artifacts.

There’s been an uptick in antiquities smuggling in recent years, fueled by ISIS and anonymous internet sales. It’s possible that antiquities dogs could help crack down on the trade. At the very least, they seem like they might be able to sniff out any antiquities based on cats.

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